- Associated Press - Thursday, March 8, 2012

OMAHA, Neb. — Bob Kerrey will be able to focus sooner than expected on the November general election for his old job representing Nebraska in the U.S. Senate after his main primary opponent abruptly quit the race Thursday.

While the decision by Chuck Hassebrook clears Mr. Kerrey’s path to a nomination he already was expected to win, it does little to alleviate the challenge of a Democrat winning a high-profile campaign in a conservative state that keeps trending Republican.

Mr. Hassebrook endorsed Mr. Kerrey at a joint news conference, citing the former senator’s persistent popularity as hampering his own ability to raise campaign money. He said the popular former senator and governor gives Democrats their best chance at keeping the seat.

“There’s, frankly, a surge of popularity for Bob Kerrey among Democrats,” Mr. Hassebrook, a University of Nebraska regent for 17 years, said Thursday during the news conference at the Omaha Press Club. “That’s what led me to conclude that I simply could not mount an effective campaign.”

Sen. Ben Nelson, the lone Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, announced in December that he would not seek a third term. That sent state Democrats scrambling to draft Mr. Kerrey, who at first said he wouldn’t run then changed course late last month and decided he would.

The state party made a concerted effort to stay out of the primary brouhaha that ensued, as some expressed exasperation that Mr. Kerrey jumped into the race after Mr. Hassebrook had given up his chance for re-election as regent in order to give Democrats a recognizable name at the top of the November ballot.

“When Bob Kerrey entered the race, the dynamics changed,” said Vic Covalt, state Democratic Party chairman. “Bob Kerrey is a very powerful, very charismatic, very accomplished U.S. senator.”

Mr. Kerrey, a Medal of Honor recipient who first ran for president in 1992, acknowledged he now has an advantage in being able to focus on the general election while the crowded Republican field focuses on the May primary.

“It’s always been … thinking about the general election,” he said. “It’s so close. It’s March, and in less than 240 days, the general election happens.”

With less than eight months until Election Day, Mr. Kerrey will have his work cut out for him, said David Kramer, the former Nebraska GOP chairman and 2006 U.S. Senate candidate.

“The road to the general election is still one that he has a lot of obstacles to overcome, not the least of which … is, he’s got to go reintroduce himself to voters,” Mr. Kramer said. “And … the third party super PACS can start going after him now.”

It’s too late for election officials to remove Mr. Hassebrook’s name from the primary ballot, even though he now will be campaigning for Mr. Kerrey. Three others have filed for the Democratic primary, but none has held public office and only one, Steven Lustgarten, has reported having any money on hand for a campaign.

Nebraska’s GOP Senate field, national Republicans and conservative outside groups have for weeks been targeting Mr. Kerrey, who left the U.S. Senate and Nebraska in 2001 to become president of New School University in New York City.

Four Republicans are campaigning for the GOP nomination: state Attorney General Jon Bruning; state Treasurer Don Stenberg; state Sen. Deb Fischer; and investment adviser Pat Flynn. A fifth candidate, Steven Zimmerman, has filed for candidacy, but had raised no money since joining the race last year.

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